BAR HARBOR — Residents who rent a room or whole property to visitors urged changes to the current rule prohibiting rentals for fewer than five nights at a joint workshop Tuesday with the town council and planning board.
The council and planning board discussed proposed zoning amendments, particularly regarding density regulations to allow for employee dormitories, rooming houses, and workforce dormitories in town. The two groups also discussed short term rentals, reviewing current ordinance restrictions regarding length of stays, and the definition of what qualifies as a vacation rental.
During this discussion, council chair Gary Friedmann opened the floor to public comment. “This is not a public hearing.” Friedmann told the full room. “But because you’re all here, it would be unfair not to let people speak.”
The multiple comments that followed focused mostly on a request to change the definition of vacation rental to allow people to rent a single room in their house, and to allow stays of less than five nights. Currently the land use ordinance specifies that a vacation rental is a unit rented no less than 5 and no more than 30 days, so renting for fewer than five nights is not allowed.
“I think that the idea of changing the definition of what is a vacation rental, that’s something you can do now, have it done by November,” said resident Earl Brechlin. “If we don’t do that, you’re turning half the people in this room into outlaws, and you’re throwing a hand grenade into their checkbook.”
Resident Amber Howard asked the officials to “move quickly to change the definition of a vacation rental to allow less than five nights, and to allow [the owner] to be on property. You don’t get more local than being in house with people,” she said.
Resident Sherri Dyer suggested changing the definition “to allow someone to rent a portion of their own house if it’s homestead,” she said, referring to the homestead exemption homeowners can receive on the property taxes of their permanent residence.
She also questioned the assertion, made at previous meetings, that vacation rentals are contributing to the housing crisis on Mount Desert Island.
“There are some circumstances where people have changed year-round to vacation rentals, and that’s a real issue,” Dyer said. “On the other hand, I have two year-round rentals. My property taxes on that are the highest on all the properties I own. I subsidize my year-round rentals with the weekly rental.”
Resident Damien DeFalco also said he would like to see the minimum stay changed, because he rents an apartment to offset his mortgage, and has trouble filling his unit for five nights at a time. “We’re not hitting the numbers that my financial planner suggested that we hit,” he said. “With the five-night minimum, we have zero bookings right now for the summer.”
He went on to say that most bookings “are for people three nights or less, so we’re at a significant disadvantage on the honor system.”
Speaking as someone who rents a unit on his property, resident Sean Keeley said, “short term rentals are affordable housing. There’s no two ways about it.” He asked for a decrease in the number of nights stayed to help property owners during the shoulder season and winter.
Keeley also said that with growing visitation to Acadia, “I don’t see anecdotally us building those hotel rooms to accommodate. We as property owners have an asset, and I think we should be able to convert that asset into income to some degree. If anything, let’s incentivize families to convert some of their space into rentals.”
Some residents spoke openly about breaking the current ordinance unwittingly. “I’m one of the outlaw people who rent a room in my house, so I’m one hundred percent illegal right now,” said resident Julia Thomas. “I wasn’t aware of the rules.”
Thomas went on to say that renting a room short-term has allowed her to own a house in Bar Harbor on a single income.
Resident Rob Jordan, who was sued last year by the town for repeated vacation rental violations, asked for changes as quickly as possible.
“I admit, I’m an outlaw,” Jordan said. “My concern is not just for me, but for all the other outlaws who I’m in good company with tonight,” he told the councilors and planning board. “How are you going to deal with them going forward between now and November? There’s going to be a lot of people breaking the law here this summer if you don’t resolve this quickly.”
Changes to the land use ordinance have to undergo a long process, explained Code Enforcement Officer Angela Chamberlain. It involves public hearings and eventually a vote by the town. Changes proposed now could not be passed until November, she said.
Coucilor Joe Minutolo suggested offering amnesty or delayed enforcement for people breaking current rules, until they can be changed in November. Councilor Paul Paradis disagreed.
“I’m against amnesty,” Paradis said. “What do we do with Rob Jordan, give him his money back? I’m against that.” He went on to say, however, “I think we need to make [the ordinance] simpler so that folks aren’t inadvertently breaking the law.”
Since the joint session was a workshop and not a meeting, no action was taken. However, councilors present generally agreed to direct the planning board to work with the new town planner, Michele Gagnon, on proposing land use ordinance changes suggested in the meeting.